Second Whitman Lecture

"The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." -- last sentence, 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass
If I tried to focus the first lecture on the "I" in "Song of Myself," today I tried to explore the "you" of the poem, including the way WW defined his poetic project as a public one. He wanted to be popularly successful, but in 1855, and throughout his life, both the American public and most of what "critical establishment" there was rejected his work.

The most vehement objection was that his poetry was obscene. Emily Dickinson, for example, said: "I haven't read [WW] but I hear he is disgraceful." As Emerson told WW in 1860, he'd never have success with 19th century American readers if he didn't take out the explicit celebration of sexuality and the body. But as WW replied, if he took that out, he might as well take it all out. He wasn't trying to offend his audience, but rather liberate it. He is more faithful than the other 19th century Romantics to the experience of cosmic communion (which is a bodily experience) and the idea of the oneness of the mind and nature, of the material world with the spirit: the role the body plays in his poetry & in his vision is crucial, all divine & part of one whole, sensuality way self feels godhead.

The critics' most frequent objection (as the review from the London Critic indicates) was that his poetry not "poetry" at all. To remind us what "poetry" meant to most people in America in 1850s, we looked at the example of Longfellow's "Blacksmith," with its conventional (& imported) form, its belief that poetry transforms and idealizes reality, its use of "poetic" diction, etc. We contrasted that to WW's commitment to a new poetics for a new world -- especially the diction of "Song of Myself," the words it is made out of, and how they open poetry to the living language of contemporary life. As suggested by Ezra Pound's grudging tribute in "A Pact" (included in our anthology), almost all 20th C poetry indebted to WW.

WW, however, writing as a Romantic, was less interested in reviving the art of poetry than in transforming readers, and through them, society. For him the poet is a kind of priest, and the poem a kind of revivalist sermon. Finallly to him his poem is a means, not an end; as Whitman put it in a journal entry: "all my poems do. All I write I write to arouse in you a great personality."

So despite celebratory tone, "Song" acknowledges and even has its origins in the distance between the "self" he believes in and the way readers live their lives, and between how actual Americans have not realized the idea of a "new world" (Section 11, Sec. 32). And so the "plot" of "Song" is against contemporary reader's "life," his or her assumptions, "your" assumptions -- the nature of the poem is performative, not narrative -- the "when" of the poem is the time in which "you" read it -- and the "design" of the poem is to convert the reader: "what I assume you shall assume."

I ended by discussing specific aspects of the poem as a rhetorical performance, organized around "you" as much as around "I" -- rhetorical strategies by which WW goes after reader, attempt to convert him/her in course of poem, the way it's part public oratory and part private seduction, but always trying "to fetch you whoever you are flush with myself"

A couple last points: although WW poses as self-satisfied, godlike "loafer," he is working really hard to convert reader (ultimately, the "self" WW celebrates depends upon "you"); although WW offers us a lot -- kosmos, divinity, &c. -- also takes away a lot too -- no sense of closure, meaningful roles, &c. (vs. Longfellow's smith, who can sleep soundly after accomplishing something -- WW's project has no stopping point).

For Wednesday: "Passage to India" and Democratic Vistas

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